MINDBODYGREEN: What Is A Female-Led Relationship? The 3 Different Forms & How To Explore

If you're a woman who likes being in control or a man who likes playing a more subordinate role, you might be interested—or already finding yourself involved in—female-led relationships.

What is a female-led relationship, or FLR?

A female-led relationship, or FLR, is traditionally a type of BDSM relationship between a dominant woman and a submissive man. Although the term originated within the kink community, some people now use the term "female-led relationship" more generally to describe any relationship between a man and a woman wherein the woman holds more power than the man, whether in terms of breadwinner status, decision-making authority, or the couple's sexual dynamic.

"The definition has many variants, as this is a wide umbrella term," according to sex educator and professional dominatrix Lola Jean. "FLR can be any relationship that is not 'male-led.' In its most lenient format, [an FLR may be] more of an equal-power or varied-power exchange between partners. In its more extreme and perhaps traditional [form], FLR is a relationship where the female, or femme, is the decision-maker for the other partner. This could be anything from their finances to their attire to more menial tasks like chores."

Any of the below dynamics might be involved in an FLR, though not all need to be present for a relationship to be considered FLR:

  • The woman is the sole or primary income earner in the relationship.
  • The man handles most or all of the domestic responsibilities and child care.
  • The woman is the chief decision-maker in the relationship.
  • The woman's thoughts, feelings, and perspectives are given priority over the man's in the relationship.
  • The woman has full financial control in the relationship, including controlling what the man is or isn't allowed to spend money on.
  • The woman is sexually dominant, and most sexual encounters revolve around her pleasure.
  • The woman is typically the one that decides when and how to have sex.
  • The man's role is largely submissive and obedient, whether in the relationship, in bed, or both.
  • The man and woman are largely equal in their day-to-day lives, but the woman is dominant in the bedroom.

The kink vs. feminist relationships.

In the kink community, FLR specifically refers to an eroticized power dynamic wherein women have power over men in a relationship, whether sexually, financially, or in terms of day-to-day decision-making. But some people have begun to embrace the term as a sort of synonym for a feminist relationship or a relationship where the woman is the head of the household.

"We've seen many BDSM terms and concepts seep into mainstream culture," sex therapist and researcher Gloria Brame, Ph.D., tells mbg. "FLR is another term that once specifically referred to a female-dominant/submissive-male dynamic but which can be understood by any feministic people."

As a kink, FLR gets much of its excitement and thrill from turning traditional gender roles on their head, Jean explains. Where our society still tends to view men as dominant and women as submissive, FLR consciously flips the scripts and indulges in a power dynamic that places women on top.

That said, today's culture is thankfully starting to shed its old gender norms in general. It's becoming increasingly common for women to be the primary earners in their households and for relationships to seek more egalitarian grounds by consciously empowering the women in them. Nearly 30% of women in dual-income marriages make more money than their husbands, according to 2018 census data. It's also becoming common for women to take the reins in the bedroom, even outside the world of BDSM. While a dominant woman may have previously been seen as a rarity or a kinky fantasy, today it's much more mainstream.

As such, many couples might find themselves accurately represented within the broadest definition of "FLR," even if the term isn't one they would necessarily use to describe themselves.

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Feb. 16 2021

ROLLINGSTONE: Sex Workers Worry They’re Going to Be Purged From Twitter

For 11 years, Genesis Lynn, the owner of Fetish Con, an industry trade show for people in the fetish industry, had relied on Twitter. Fetish Con had more than 55,000 followers, and used it to advertise her annual event, as well as new speakers and classes. Last August, after canceling the trade show due to Covid-19, Lynn tweeted a GIF of a woman crying with the caption, “We miss you all more than you know. Stay safe everyone and we’ll see everyone in 2021.” It was her last tweet before she tried to log in in December, and was informed that her account had been suspended.

Lynn was stunned. She’d had her account since August 2009 and its content had never been flagged (with one exception, notes, when when a model who had decided she didn’t want to attend the event wanted a photo taken down). The account didn’t feature any sexual content or nudity; its profile picture was the FetishCon logo, a silhouette of a woman against a blue background, and its header image was a photo of a woman in Mardi Gras regalia with pasties, about on par with your average Instagram influencer’s bikini photo in terms of showing skin. She authored an appeal and sent it into the platform, but never heard back.

“I wrote that we’ve been a small business for 20 years and losing this account is devastating to my business and my ability to connect with my customers,” she tells Rolling Stone. “I was crying. I was so upset.” Twitter was Fetish Con’s primary platform for connecting with fans, models, producers, and attendees; the event had grown in attendance every year, largely due to its exposure there. With Covid-19, “it’s been hard for us financially, and this will only hurt us more,” she says.

Fetish Con isn’t the only adult business that’s been deplatformed by Twitter within the past two months. Last week, in a move that shocked many in the industry, the accounts for the adult content platforms Clips4Sale and ModelCentro were suspended from Twitter without notice, prompting sex workers on social media to panic about losing the one social platform that has openly allowed them for years. “This is a full-on assault on sex workers,” one tweet said. Since ModelCentro and Clips4Sale were suspended, “the phone hasn’t stopped ringing,” says Corey Silverstein, a lawyer who represents many adult industry clients. “It’s just been ongoing messages of people being terrified they’re going to lose everything.”

Compared to other social platforms, Twitter has historically been relatively adult-friendly, allowing adult content on its platform where competitors like Instagram and Tumblr have purged such content from their sites. Still, it’s not uncommon for individual sex workers’ accounts to be suspended from large platforms for violating terms of service when users attempt to skirt guidelines about nudity or sexual content. It’s rare, however, for the accounts of large websites like ModelCentro or Clips4Sale to be subject to such treatment.

In a statement, Kat Revenga, the head of marketing and events at FanCentro, which owns ModelCentro, says the platform is “incredibly frustrated” by Twitter’s actions. In addition to ModelCentro being suspended last week, she says the accounts for FanCentro’s Arabic and Russian accounts were suspended as well within the past few days. She says FanCentro has operated accounts like ModelCentro for years virtually without incident, and speculates that the explosion of popularity of platforms like FanCentro and OnlyFans during the pandemic may have prompted Twitter to crack down on adult material, as many adult creators use Twitter to promote such accounts.

“These accounts were used to communicate with models, and to promote their work,” she says. “The people most affected by this are those who use our platforms to build businesses and communicate with fans….this should frighten everyone in [the adult industry].”

In response to a request for comment, a Twitter spokesperson denied that widespread deplatforming of sex workers was taking place. “There have not been changes to our sensitive media policy this year,” they said. “Per this policy, ‘You can share graphic violence and consensually produced adult content within your Tweets, provided that you mark this media as sensitive.’ We don’t have plans to change our sensitive media policy as it pertains to adult content.”

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Sex Workers Worry They’re Going to Be Purged From Twitter by Ej Dickson

Feb. 2 2021

THE BODY: Meet the Founders of the Molly House, Where Masculine-of-Center Sex Workers Are Mobilizing Online

Shaan Lashun and TT Baum never expected that a conference presentation would lead them to create an organization together. The self-described “co-founders, co-directors, co-everythingers” now host a critical space in a sex worker movement that has long been missing. Molly House Project started in 2019 as an organizing and social platform for masculine-of-center sex workers, including cisgender men, transgender men, transmasculine people, and anyone who identifies as male or was assigned male at birth.

Baum and Lashun have been longtime activists in the sex worker movement. They both intimately know the needs that come with being invisible, vulnerable, and unable to get support. In starting Molly House Project, they are working to change that.

The program started as a digital platform to connect masculine-of-center sex workers across the country. As the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered in-person support groups of all kinds, the Molly House Project didn’t miss a step. In reality, they found that being a digital-only space for support, connection, and organizing allowed workers from all across the county to feel like part of something larger, breaking down the walls of isolation that many workers feel in their local communities.

TheBody correspondent Emmett Patterson recently caught up with Baum and Lashun to see how the project had evolved and what has been going on for masculine-of-center workers throughout the pandemic.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Emmett Patterson: It’s always a joy to see you two. I would love to hear a little bit about Molly House Project. When, why, and how did it start?

TT Baum: Back in—what year is it? [Laughs] Ugh, this is the shortest, longest decade of my life. Back in March 2019, I was coming out of a fog of having not been involved in activist spaces for a long time. I found out about a call for proposals for the Woodhull Freedom Foundation’s annual conference. There was a sex worker track that I was interested in submitting a proposal for. I had been wanting to do a panel for a long time about the challenges that [sex workers] who are masculine of center, assigned male at birth, or male-identified face, within the larger conversations and organizing within sex worker rights. I put out a call on Twitter to see who would be interested in this kind of space.

Then, I met [gesturing largely to Lashun] this person who I am now co-directing an organization with. Shaan showed up with ideas and really proved that they wanted to contribute a lot to this work. We prepared this talk, and it became apparent to us shortly afterwards that if we didn’t do something, this gap would still exist in the field.

Patterson: Shaan, why did you initially reach out?

Shaan Lashun: I’ve always been interested particularly in the invisibility of trans men and transmasculine folks. I mean, we’re so invisible that when I say that I’m trans, people assume I’m a trans woman, even trans women themselves. I had been working on this particular intersection that transmasculine people have in sex worker organizing with Reframe Health and Justice and S.W.O.P. [Sex Worker Organizing Project].

I thought TT’s tweet was dope, and we started to talk about the panel. Since then, [ours] has been a working relationship that I really appreciate. The development of the project has also been my ability to work with someone.

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Meet the Founders of the Molly House, Where Masculine-of-Center Sex Workers Are Mobilizing Online by Emmit Patterson

Jan. 28 2021

PSYCHOLOGY TODAY: Kink Education Is an Ethical Obligation

The inclination for people to understand the unknown is often fueled by an immense inability to tolerate discomfort. If we look back throughout history, when folks have been presented with unfamiliar concepts, desires, or identities, there are a few ways in which they have typically responded. The first group is a subset of people who see differences and acknowledge their existence but let them continue to exist in the world without much of an opinion, understanding that those differences have little to no impact on their own lives. They do not approach these individuals with judgment; rather, they continue to live in a space of neutrality.

We then have people who attempt to understand differences, who value and embrace the beauty of diversity, and who put energy into learning about those who are different from themselves. These folks may not only approach others with acceptance, but sometimes they will fight to bring to light the problematic nature of discrimination and stereotyping.

Lastly, there is a category of folks who immediately dismiss anyone whose identities or desires are outside of their perceived conventional understanding of "normal." Further, they seek to change those folks in an attempt to mold them into inauthentic, silenced, and truly false versions of themselves in order for them to fit within the constructs that society has deemed acceptable. It is this category of individuals who continue to perpetuate hate, shame, and deep pain that so many folks have to deal with on a daily basis.

The problematic response of immediately expressing negative judgments towards individuals whose differences are unfamiliar or inconsistent with one's own way of living is unquestionably something that needs to be targeted on a global scale. However, within the mental health community, specifically the sex therapy community, it is our ethical responsibility to make sure that this discrimination is not being perpetuated within our own field, and it is painful to reveal that it is. While advancements are indeed occurring in all realms of psychotherapy, the blatant harm that is being done to the kink community as they attempt to seek mental health resources indicates a significant need for advanced training in the realms of kink.

In a study released in 2012, researchers found that in a sample of 766 clinicians, 25 percent automatically pathologized kink. While this number is damaging in and of itself, what is both startling and appalling is that 30 percent of those clinicians agreed that kink should be eliminated by therapy (Kelsey et. all, 2012). We cannot dismiss the fact that eight years have passed since this research was conducted, and it would be beneficial to see how these numbers look today. However, mental health clinicians pathologizing the kink community is not an issue that has been entirely eliminated, and it must continue to be addressed.

The pathologizing of kinky desires has existed for centuries, and as mentioned in past articles, was exacerbated by Freud and Kraft-Ebbing's works in the late 1800s and early 1900s. At the time, there was little to no understanding of kink; it was commonly dismissed first as insanity and later rebranded as existing as a result of psychological conflict. The psychopathological theory, influenced by Freud's beliefs that psychological disease must be occurring if someone has BDSM desires has since been thoroughly examined by researchers.

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Kink Education Is an Ethical Obligation by Elyssa Helfer

Jan 8, 2021

BITCH MEDIA: A Man Walks Into a Day Spa

In January 2019, New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft visited a Palm Beach business called Orchids of Asia Day Spa two days in a row. We know this because the day spa was the target of a sting operation, and hidden cameras captured Kraft paying for sex work provided by two women who worked there. The story, and Kraft’s part in it, made headlines for months after the February 2019 bust; by the time the cases were closed in December 2020, however, the public had mostly lost interest. In the end, the multimillionaire’s misdemeanor charges were dropped. None of the 20 other men caught on camera paying for sex were charged. The only people convicted were four Chinese American women who were either employees or owners of Orchids of Asia. Two were convicted, fined $5,000, and ordered to complete 100 hours of community service; the other two made deals with the prosecutor.

It’s the latest coda to an old story—the wealthy pay high-powered lawyers to set them free, and workers lose their freedom and their livelihood. But fully understanding the case against Orchids of Asia requires diving into the world of human-trafficking legislation and the longstanding media frenzy surrounding it. In presenting the Orchids of Asia investigation to the public, Palm Beach Sheriff William Snyder spun a complex story of depraved sexual exploitation: Women were stolen from China, forced to work seven days a week and sleep on massage tables, and have unprotected sex with 1,000 men per year. He deemed it “modern-day slavery” and insisted that the workers would be prosecuted “over [his] dead body.” Clearly, the sheriff had yet to speak with any of the women he had just placed “in protective custody”—had he done so, he would have known that two of them owned the salon and all four had moved to Palm Beach from within the United States, and of their own volition.

This overzealousness to file all sex work under “trafficking” can be traced back to the George W. Bush administration, which established a State Department office to monitor trafficking both domestically and abroad. In 2000, Congress had passed the bipartisan Trafficking Victims Protection Act, which defined trafficking broadly. The morality-focused Bush prioritized combating sex trafficking as a matter of “saving” victimized women, and the result was increased targeting of both consensual sex workers and immigrants who were not trafficked in any meaningful sense of the word. The Obama administration assumed a broader focus, expanding the Bush-era laws beyond sex work and applying them to forced labor of any kind. Many progressive organizations looked positively on this change as an effort to expand laws on “modern-day slavery” into the realm of labor exploitation. However, it was Obama’s human-trafficking task force that focused its attention on “major sex-trafficking hubs”—including South Florida. The results of that work are clear in the Kraft case.

In a 2019 article, Janie Chuang, a law professor at American University, explained the legal history of human trafficking as “exploitation creep” that seeks to “expand previously narrow legal categories—at least in terms of rhetoric and policy, but in some cases also in hard law—in a strategic bid to subject a broader range of practices to a greater amount of public opprobrium.” In other words, lawmakers, some of whom have very good intentions, use trafficking laws to cast a wider net of prosecution and limit avenues for the abuse of the vulnerable. This results in some messiness: The term “trafficking” can involve any kind of forced labor, yet seems to be applied to sex work more often than not, despite the fact that it is much less common than other kinds of labor exploitation. (New York’s Human Trafficking Intervention courts, for example, exclusively hear cases involving the sex trade.) According to Chuang, U.S. law enforcement often refers to any forced labor as trafficking “even if no one changes location at all,” and, in turn, frames any form of trafficking as slavery. Conveniently, she points out, funneling all smuggling and forced-labor cases into trafficking convictions allows U.S. immigration and labor laws to evade close inspection: Instead of questioning why people pay exorbitant prices to be smuggled into the country—or why those already here may need to work low-wage, exploitative jobs—the justice system can simply point to a handful of individual traffickers as perpetrators.

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A Man Walks Into a Day Spa by Nora Salem

Jan 6, 2021

OPEN DEMOCRACY: How I became an advocate for sex workers’ rights

I used to think that people who did sex work had found themselves in a situation where they had no choice but to do sex work, and that the job of feminists was to help sex workers find alternative sources of income.

In 2010, at the XVIII International AIDS Conference in Vienna, Austria, I attended a session on sex work. There I asked a question that today I feel embarrassed to own up to: “Why would anyone choose to do sex work?”

You can imagine how the temperature of the room – full of sex worker rights activists – plummeted. I can’t even remember what response I got from the panel, but I do recall the conversation I had later with Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi, then the executive director of the African Women’s Development Fund, which I worked for at the time.

Most of us grow up in patriarchal societies and are fed particular narratives around what is right and wrong from birth. As a young girl at a Catholic boarding school I was taught that only bad girls had sex. Some girls were described as ‘mattresses’ because, allegedly, all the boys in the neighbourhood had slept with them. It was only when stories started to spread about who I had slept with that I realised that rumours were just that. It took many more years before I began to question why society tries to control women’s bodies, choices and sexualities.

On the way back to our hotel after the conference, Adeleye-Fayemi explained to me that people are entitled to make choices about their life, that they may make different decisions depending on their current life circumstances, and that for many people sex work is a logical choice.

That car ride started a journey for me. I began to think about sex work as legitimate work, and eventually started to work with others to create spaces where activists, including sex workers and other historically oppressed groups, are able to share the realities of their own lives with other people.

Two years ago, I saw there was a need for a festival focused on sex, sexualities and pleasure, and brought together a group of feminist, queer and trans activists to co-organise such an event in Accra, Ghana. #AdventuresLive was a success, so we decided to make the festival an annual one.

The following year, in November 2020, our second festival took place, with the theme ‘Odyssey of Desire’. One of our sessions, Addressing Violence Against Ghanaian Sex Workers, featured Bridget Dixon and Mariama Yusuf, who work with Women of Dignity Alliance. They spoke about the violence that sex workers in Ghana face, from police officers in particular, who arrest and rape them, before robbing them of their earnings.

Dixon and Yusuf were clear that these acts of violence are perpetrated against sex workers because their work is criminalised. They call for its decriminalisation – a demand long made by sex worker activists. According to the Count Me In! consortium: “To a large extent, the violence in the lives of sex workers is created by the conditions of criminalisation. Sex work is not inherently violent but discrimination and stigma against sex workers generates violence and limits sex workers access to justice.”

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How I became an advocate for sex workers’ rights by Nana Darkoa Sekyiamah

Jan 4, 2021

ROLLING STONE: Pornhub Upended the Porn Industry. Now New Changes Could Destroy Sex Workers’ Livelihoods

At the start of the pandemic, Alex and Cassie, a same-sex, nonbinary, multiracial couple based in Canada, were laid off from their full-time jobs. Scrambling for income, and unable to leave the house because of Alex’s preexisting conditions, Alex and Cassie, who asked to be identified only by their first names to protect their privacy, decided to start selling pornographic content through Pornhub.

On Thursday, credit card processors Visa and Mastercard made a shocking announcement: they would be terminating their relationships with Pornhub. It was part of a series of reforms surrounding the porn behemoth, following an exposé in the New York Times by journalist Nicholas Kristof regarding the presence of videos depicting rape and child sexual abuse on the website. Alex and Cassie reacted to the news with “complete horror and fear.” “There’s absolutely no work in our area and without paid content on these sites, we’ll lose more than 50 percent of our income,” they tell Rolling Stone. For the first time since the pandemic started, they wondered if they might become homeless. “No other industry cuts someone’s salary in half overnight,” they say. “And it feels terrible, because we have done nothing wrong.”

Read the Full Article Here: Rolling Stone: Pornhub Upended the Porn Industry. Now New Changes Could Destroy Sex Workers’ Livelihoods by EJ Dickson

December 11, 2020

ELITE DAILY: 10 BDSM Education Instagram Accounts That’ll Teach You So Much

BDSM made a splash in 2020's mainstream culture. The buzz surrounding (the very problematic) 365 DNI movie and the lyrics to "WAP" this year indicate as much. But in the same way that porn shouldn't be substituted for sex education, spicy pop culture moments don't make for great how-to guides for kink. The following educational BDSM Instagram accounts, however, can give you everything you need and then some.

These informative accounts are run by certified sexologists, therapists, and sexuality educators. They're also run by dominatrixes, professional bottoms, and all kinds of veteran thots who want to share their years of experience with you. Engaging with these educators' accounts can also benefit them greatly in light of Instagram's recent Terms of Service update. On Dec. 20, 2020, Instagram changed its guidelines to adhere to parent company Facebook's rules against sexual solicitation. These changes can penalize sexuality professionals for using suggestive words, emojis, or hashtags.

While Instagram insists they're not targeting the sex ed community, many creators and educators have experienced censorship that has already impacted the way they use the app, which is often essential to their livelihoods. That's why now, it's more important than ever to follow your curiosity and tap into the Instagram BDSM education community. With this in mind, here are 10 accounts to follow.

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10 BDSM Education Instagram Accounts That’ll Teach You So Much by Caroline Colvin

Dec 22, 2020

INQUIRIES: Pain and Power: BDSM as Spiritual Expression

Western society is becoming increasingly secular as religion disappears from the public sphere. This developing identification has created a void as people move away from the traditional, established symbols and maps of meaning. People are still finding and inventing systems to fulfill their existential questioning, increasingly in areas that are traditionally seen as secular. Popular culture and contemporary subcultures are being utilized not just as art, entertainment and community but as religious expression. A prime example of this ‘secular religioning’ can be found in the practice and subculture of BDSM - the intentional, consensual participation in the play of pain, power and sex. The intersection of these primary forces in the human experience present in BDSM makes the practice a fertile ground for spiritual expression. The BDSM subculture can be analyzed as a ‘secular religion’ by looking at the psychology of pain and power, religious ways of hurting, and BDSM as ritual.

The popularity of traditional religions are on the decline1 as Western society strives towards secularism. People are increasingly identifying as non-religious as religion disappears from the public sphere, but this does not mean that the drives and needs that religion addresses have declined. People may be moving away from particular symbols and maps of meaning but they are still finding and inventing systems to fulfil their existential questioning, increasingly in areas that are traditionally seen as secular. One prime example of this ‘secular religioning’ can be found in the practice and subculture of BDSM.

BDSM is the umbrella term used to describe the consensual participation in Bondage/Discipline, Dominance/Submission, and Sadism/Masochism (most kinks fall under this umbrella). It is intentionally participating in the play of pain, power and (often) sex. The focus on the intersection of these powerful, primal forces in the human experience makes BDSM a fertile ground for spiritual expression. BDSM can be analyzed as a ‘secular religion’ by looking at the psychology of pain and power, religious ways of hurting, and BDSM as ritual.

Read the Full Article Here: INQUIRIES: Pain and Power: BDSM as Spiritual Expression by Alicia Charles D'Avalon


REFINERY29: “Kink Helped My Mental Health”. The Healing Benefits Of BDSM

Warning: This article includes mentions of suicidality, rape, drug misuse, eating disorders and self-harm.
Two years ago, 38-year-old Alice* suddenly went profoundly deaf. She lost her job, her boyfriend dumped her and the relentless tinnitus she experienced led her to have suicidal thoughts. "Before I went deaf, I was stable," she tells me. "I had trauma but I could live with it. With the tinnitus, I wanted to die. It felt like the only option. My mother died by suicide so it felt very familiar. I came so close."
In order to distract herself from this emotional and physical agony, Alice joined a dating app. It was there that she met a man with whom she started practicing BDSM, which she credits with getting her mental health back on track. BDSM – which stands for bondage-discipline, dominance-submission, sadism-masochism – involves enacting scenarios, often in a sexual setting, where there is a power imbalance, generally between a dominant individual (a dom) and a submissive individual (a sub).
The world of BDSM is broad and incredibly diverse, encompassing everything from the use of a blindfold during sex to forms of consensual torture. It’s difficult to define and the concept is marred by misinformation perpetuated by pornography and the media (and Fifty Shades of Grey).
People with an interest in BDSM used to be considered dangerous. The father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, described sadomasochism as the "most significant of all perversions" and Wilhelm Stekel, one of Freud’s earliest followers, went even further: he linked it to cannibalism, criminality, vampirism and mass murder. Until the 2013 version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) – a definitive text on mental illnesses and their treatment – anyone who experienced arousal by atypical stimuli, such as feet or cross-dressing, was classified as clinically disordered, even if the fetish caused no distress or harm.
Despite this, recent research suggests that BDSM does not indicate a disordered mind and that its practitioners have relatively good mental health: they’re less neurotic, more conscientious, less sensitive to rejection and more open-minded. In 2013, a study also found that they report being generally happier than the general population. So does BDSM attract people who are naturally more well-adjusted or does BDSM improve the lives of those who practise it? Does it have the potential to heal those of us who are suffering because of our mental health?
In 2008, a paper was published which said that for most people, practising BDSM could accurately be thought of as a hobby, making it sound as wholesome as knitting or Zumba – just an innocent way to pass the time. However, when I ask around and speak to women on the kink scene, I find that they consider it to be a far more fundamental component of both their identity and their wellbeing.
Dr Gloria Brame is a clinical sexologist, sex therapist and author. "For some people BDSM is a hobby. I think it’s a weird hobby, but okay," she tells me. "For me, BDSM is a legitimate sexual identity, like being gay. It isn’t about the spanking and the whipping and the chains. I would be a kinky person without any of that. I’d still want to be in charge. It’s who I am."
"It helps me so much," Alice explains. "BDSM forces me to question my role as a disabled woman, to question the expectations I have for myself and the expectations society has for me. Vulnerability is not a weakness. I understand that now. I feel empowered through vulnerability."
Eevi* is a 24-year-old woman who talks enthusiastically and expressively about BDSM, despite describing herself as a newbie. "I’ve always been a high energy, nervous person. I got into a lot of trouble at school, for not being able to focus, for lashing out. I had anger management issues and was diagnosed with ADHD," she tells me. "As a teenager, I spiralled, I developed anorexia. Looking back, I think it was a way for me to reclaim control. BDSM is a way for me to reclaim that control in a healthier way. It allows me the possibility of healing from bad experiences, including the rape I endured when I was 18. I’ve known I was sexually submissive from a young age but after I was raped, it took on a deeper meaning."
"Of course, BDSM is just one of the ways I look after my mental health," Eevi adds. "I don't think it should be the only form of self-care, or considered as a replacement to therapy, but it definitely offers a lot of potential to process issues in a constructive way."
Lucy*, 36, is a psychology student whose own mental health journey has been tumultuous to say the least. In her early 20s she suffered with bad anxiety, panic attacks and agoraphobia. "I stopped eating and started to waste away," she explains. "I became addicted to [the benzodiazepine] lorazepam. Everything was just completely fucked up. I had to go into an addiction centre. After I was discharged, I was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder."
BDSM has always been something she wanted to explore but it was only last year, before the coronavirus pandemic, that she started attending kink events. "In the beginning I would look at people getting whipped and think, Oh my God, why would anyone want that? It looks so painful," she says, "but then I tried it and I realised that there’s this cathartic element to it. If you’re taking beatings, you’re taking lots of pain...that can be empowering. Afterwards you feel like, Fuck, I’m really strong! It’s like you get your demons beaten out of you. I haven’t had it in a while because of lockdown, and I’m craving it. It’s very strange, it’s like I need it."
Thirty-six-year-old Charlotte has been part of the kink community since 2015. Reflecting on her time in it and her preconceptions prior to joining, she says: "When I started out, my perception of BDSM was very wrong. I thought it was just a way for women to be used and abused by men. But really, it’s a way for me to communicate what I want and what I like and what I need. I’ve had depression and anxiety for most of my adult life but recently my mental health has been much better and BDSM is one of my coping strategies."
Charlotte says that BDSM is both "a lot of fun" and that it "makes sex better". More than that, she says it allows her to escape from her head. "I self-harmed as a teenager," she explains. "I’m a masochist; I enjoy the pain. BDSM has provided me with a safe space to experience that. It’s no longer self-flagellation. I’m not punishing myself because I don’t like myself."
For a self-described "overthinker" like Charlotte, being in a space where someone else takes over feels "absolutely magical".
"I’m constantly worrying about my blood sugar as I have type 1 diabetes," she says, "but during BDSM sessions, my dom will scan my glucose monitor for me. I don’t have to worry about it. I can stop being vigilant. I can relax. It resets my brain."
While conducting interviews with these women via video chat, I was struck by how much eye contact they made. We were talking about some of the most intimate aspects of their lives. I was expecting discomfort, maybe even embarrassment. But the women looked me dead in the eye – unflinching, strong, unashamed. It was, frankly, nothing short of inspiring.
"BDSM changed my life," Gloria says as she smiles and takes a long drag of her cigarette. "I feel like it has been transformational psychologically and emotionally. It radically changed my perspective, my ability to trust people. I used to have secrets I could never tell anyone, shame about my body. I was pounded down by patriarchal society. BDSM is incredibly empowering. My whole life I wanted to do these things that I thought were forbidden. Why would some guy let me boss him around, tie him up, put clamps on his nipples, you know?"
While Gloria is a dominatrix and Alice is a switch (someone who enjoys performing both dominant and submissive roles), Eevi, Lucy and Charlotte all have very submissive tendencies and often engage in BDSM play with male doms. I asked them if they identified as feminists (they all did) and suggested that by letting men hurt them, they could inadvertently be reinforcing sexist and patriarchal norms. As the standard, hackneyed and reductive critique of BDSM goes: It’s men beating the shit out of women, like they have been doing since the beginning of time…
"But you’re exposing the structural inequality," Eevi explains without hesitating in response to my question. She’s obviously considered this perspective before. "By playing with power dynamics, you’re forced to think about them and communicate about them and it makes you more critical. There are lots of people in vanilla relationships that are very traditional and heteronormative and they avoid thinking about these issues but in a BDSM relationship you have to think about them."
I’m forced to agree with her. "I think BDSM aligns beautifully with feminism," says Charlotte in response to the same point. "As a sub, I set the limits. I am in control. I have the power."
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Dec 2, 2020